I love to walk in the dark without a flashlight. I took up this practice while working at Wilderness Canoe Base, at the edge of the Boundary Waters. For the community there, it’s part of the culture, a point of pride, to learn to navigate the rocky, steep paths by instinct as much as by sight. Without the artificial glare, I realized, my eyes quickly adjust, and I understand that no darkness is complete. On certain nights, starlight and moonlight can seem as illuminating as the sun. Light radiates subtly even from a cloudy sky. And I find that there is some kind of light that emanates from within myself as well, almost a sixth sense that guides my feet. Walking without a light cultivates an inner quietness that allows for deep attention to my surroundings. Training my eyes on a flashlight beam, on the other hand, means that I can only see a small patch in front of my feet. I am blind to everything else. In many ways, I perceive much more when I don’t shine a light.
“I am the light of the world,” Jesus proclaims in the Gospel of John. In Matthew, Jesus declares, instead, “You are the light of the world.” No offense to the Gospel of John, which has its excellent points, but here I really prefer Matthew’s theological emphasis. Let’s remember which “you” Jesus is talking to here. These would be the ones he has just blessed in the beatitudes. He blessed the particular people whom no one believes blessed and those who choose to stand with them—the poor, the grieving, the persecuted; the refugee, the immigrant, the Muslim, the queer person. He did this in order to make it clear what God’s blessing is really about. It is the invitation to belong to a beloved community, in which everyone, everyone experiences blessing, NO EXCEPTIONS. “You are the light of the world.” “Are” is a profound statement as well. Not “were,” not “will be,” but “are.” All we have is the present, and right now, we ARE the light of the world.
These days, people with loud voices, big boots and high-powered beams are crashing around in the underbrush of the dark woods. They urge us to fear those who are different. They tell us safety comes through building walls and prisons. They point to the “other” as the source of our problems and pains. But as we find ourselves enveloped in these shadows, we have a choice. We can turn off that artificial glare of hate, and put it away. We can let our path be illuminated instead by the light of love, the flame of God’s image that burns in each heart. “You are blessed” and “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says to the abused and rejected. And then he clarifies that this teaching “fulfills” rather than “abolishes” the law and the prophets. In other words, God’s love for the “poor in spirit” and the “least of these” is very old. And this love is the living heart of the tradition we have inherited—not some laundry lists of “thou shalt nots,” or some violent, punishing God. As Isaiah puts it, religion is useless, and in fact, offensive to God, if it serves as a shield from the responsibility of doing justice. Fasting, for instance, is good only if it deepens our empathy, if it moves us toward equity, if it cracks open our horizons so that we reach out beyond ourselves in sacrificial hospitality.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” Our Puritan ancestor John Winthrop and his community believed their settlement to be a “city on a hill,” a shining example for all the world. And many who came after them have claimed this identity for our nation as a whole. Sadly, these words have become the root of American exceptionalism, of the idea that this is a country set apart, and set above. These words have become a smoke screen for the violent assertion of white European cultural superiority. I believe what Jesus is really asking of his followers is the opposite: to chance human vulnerability, to adopt an open-hearted, defenseless posture, to walk in the dark without a flashlight, to shine, in the face of hatred and fear, with an inner light of love. You see, the light that is put up on the lampstand, rather than sheltered beneath the bushel, puts itself, and the household it serves, at risk. The wind could blow it out up there. Its glow will illuminate the inside of the house, laying bare the truth about its inhabitants, who they are, what they have, how they live.
The song “This Little Light of Mine”—also based on these verses—became an anthem of the civil rights movement. Apparently, it was Fannie Lou Hamer who made this tune famous. She became an activist after experiencing a forced sterilization while in the hospital for a minor surgery—a fate that many African American women shared. A few years later, Hamer joined others in attempting to register to vote. When police boarded a bus they were riding home, she began to sing. Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, elaborates on the meaning of song in the African American culture. In an interview with Bill Moyers, she says:
There are some people who come to church and they try their best to leave the way they come. But the reason you leave your house to go to church is to go through this exercise … [of singing]. The part of your being that is tampered with when you run this sound through your body is a part of you that our culture thinks should be developed and cultivated…. Once you start to put sound out on that level, you’re out. There’s no hiding place. You’re exposed.
Sound is a way to extend the territory you can affect, so people can walk into you way before they can get close to your body. And certainly the communal singing that people do together is a way of announcing that we’re here, that this is real. And so anybody who comes into that space, as long as you’re singing, they cannot change the air in that space. The song will maintain the air as your territory.”
A lot of these black, old songs are “I” songs—“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” So when you get a group-now, changing songs to “we,” like “We shall not be moved” and “We shall overcome,” that’s the presence of white people in collaboration with black people because in order to express community, you have to go to the first person plural. And in the black community, when you want the communal expression, everybody says “I.” So if there are five of us here and all of us say “I,” then you know that there’s a group. And a lot of times I’ve found when people say “we” they’re giving you a cover to not say whether they’re going to be there or not. So the “I” songs are very important. So “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” means that when the march goes, I am going to be there. So it really is a way of saying “The life that I have, I will offer to this thing.”
L. B. Lewis’s picture book animates the lyrics of “This Little Light of Mine,” following a young boy through his day. It shows how he lets his light shine, offers the life that he has in simple ways. He hugs his momma, who is working hard to cook a meal. He high-fives the older gentlemen sitting out on the front stoop. He organizes his friends for a game of basketball. You are the light of the world. This isn’t a demand, a “should,” something you need to live up to. It is a promise, and a gift. You already are the world’s light. Take a moment, quietly within yourself now. How is your light is shining? When and how is the light within you, the light of God’s love illuminating the world? Now, take a little risk. Turn to your neighbor and tell them how your light is shining. Come out of hiding. Put your lamp on the stand to give light to all the house.
[The congregation sings] “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…”